The Way We Never Were

GLENN McNatt

May 15, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

Dan Quayle took quite a bashing last summer for his comments about TV sitcom character Murphy Brown. But surprisingly, nearly a year later the former vice president finds himself being vindicated -- sort of.

Mr. Quayle's criticism of single motherhood as a cause of society's moral decline has struck a responsive chord not only among traditional conservatives but also among many of the same liberals who heaped scorn on his head during the `f presidential campaign. Suddenly, two-parent families seem to be among social-policy experts.

Recently, the usually thoughtful Atlantic magazine ran a cover story entitled ''Dan Quayle Was Right,'' which averred that ''two parents are better than one.'' Next, the respected Washington political commentator David Broder reported a developing consensus among liberals and conservatives that ''the best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact family.''

What's happening? Was the whole ''family values'' debate of last summer just so much partisan rhetoric, or have liberals really seen the light and repented?

The answer is probably a bit of both. Mr. Quayle's attack on the popular ''Murphy Brown'' in an election year was a little like hanging a sign around his neck saying ''kick me.'' His political opponents were only too happy to oblige. On the other hand, the intractability of such problems as crime, welfare dependency and teen pregnancy undoubtedly has induced some post-election liberal guilt-tripping, manifested as an urge to hook up with what is imagined to be some elusive American ''mainstream'' on social issues.

Yet the statistics still say Mr. Quayle was wrong on the facts -- then and now.

That point was recently reiterated by University of Washington historian Stephanie Coontz, author of ''The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trip.'' Ms. Coontz argues persuasively that the fabled two-parent families of earlier generations were no guarantee against the kinds of problems that plague us today.

For example, regarding the idea that single motherhood is the main reason a quarter of American children today are growing up in poverty, Ms. Coontz reminds us that the so-called ''golden age'' of marriage in the 1950s -- an era that celebrated such role models as ''Ozzie and Harriet'' and ''Father Knows Best'' -- was also a time when one out of every three U.S. children were poor -- a higher proportion than today.

As for the notion that two-parent families were more nurturing, supportive environments for children, she cites evidence that single parents have no monopoly on dysfunctional relationships and that ''up until the 1970s, wife battering, child abuse, spousal rape and even incest were commonly tolerated or ignored in married-couple families.''

Donald Hernandez, chief of the Census Bureau's marriage and family branch, recently reported new data suggesting that the tradition of the ''traditional'' family is actually pretty thin. If the ''traditional'' family is defined as one in which the father works full time year-round, the mother stays at home, and all children in the family were born after the parents' only marriage, Mr. Hernandez estimates that fewer than half of all the children born since 1940 belong to families that meet those criteria.

That number has been falling in recent decades, but the main reason so few children are born into ''traditional'' families today is that so many fathers are without steady jobs. That is related to changes in the economy that have seen the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs that once provided employment and wages adequate to keep families from falling into poverty.

Reviewing these data, Ms. Coontz suggests that ''job and wage structures, not family structures, account for most of our country's poverty.'' She argues that a strong economy is the bedrock of strong families, not vice versa as many conservatives insist.

The point would be academic were it not for the fact that the ''family values'' label has been used to discredit precisely the kind of government efforts that might strengthen American families -- jobs programs, child-care assistance, higher minimum-wage laws.

Mr. Quayle performed valuable service by forcing reconsideration of the links between family structure, values and government programs. But his prescription -- trying to recapture a past that never existed -- is still no solution for what ails us.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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